The Encyclical “Humanae Vitae” Fifty Years Later

Fifty years after its publication, the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” of Paul VI presents itself in the eyes of the men of today in a completely different way. In 1968, it was a courageous document—and therefore controversial—that went against the climate of the time, that of the sexual revolution, the realization of which required a reliable contraceptive and also the possibility of abortion. It was also the era in which economists were talking about the “population bomb,” meaning the danger of overpopulation that threatened wealthy countries and could reduce their prosperity.

Two powerful forces, therefore, were aligned against the encyclical: the utopia of happiness that the sexual revolution promised for every human being, and wealth, which would be the logical result of a reduction of the population on a vast scale.

Today, fifty years later, we see things in a completely different way. These two utopian visions have been realized, but they have not brought the hoped-for results: neither happiness nor wealth, but instead new and dramatic problems.

If the collapse of the the population in developed countries is having trouble coping with the arrival of masses of immigrants that are necessary but at the same time unacceptable for many, medical birth control has led to the invasion of procreation on the part of science, with ambiguous results that are often worrying and dangerous.

Today, when we are paying all the costs of a sharp and steep drop in birth rates, when many women after years of chemical birth control are unable to conceive children, we are realizing that the Church was right, that Paul VI had been prophetic in proposing a natural regulation of births that would safeguard the health of women, the relationship of the couple, and the natural character of procreation.

Now that young women in love with environmentalism are turning to natural methods for the regulation of fertility, without even knowing that “Humanae Vitae” exists, now that governments are trying to implement policies that encourage childbirth, we should reread the encyclical with new eyes. And instead of seeing it as the great defeat of the Church in the face of the onslaught of modernity, we can assert its prophetic lucidity in grasping the dangers inherent in these changes and celebrate, we Catholics, the fact that once again the Church did not fall into the enticing trap of the utopias of the twentieth century, but was able to grasp immediately their limitations and dangers.

But few are able to do this: for many, it is still difficult to give up the old opposition between progressive and conservative, within which the encyclical has been torn to pieces, without grasping its critical spirit and innovative power. Even now, no one seems to recall that for the first time a pope accepted the regulation of births and invited physicians to study effective natural methods.

It is very important, therefore, to be able to look at “Humanae Vitae” with new eyes, the eyes of human beings who live in the twenty-first century, now aware of the failure of many utopias and of many economic theories that had been presented as infallible.

It is only in this way that we can we face the problems of the family today, the new role of women, and the difficult relationships between ethics and science, the roots of which lie – even if unwittingly in some regards—in that text from way back in 1968.

by Lucetta Scaraffia
From “L’Osservatore Romano” of July 25, 2018